by Eldred Bird
In my last WITS post, Everything has a Story, I mentioned “The Maltese Falcon”. This movie revolves around what is arguably one of the most famous examples of a plot device known as a MacGuffin (sometimes spelled McGuffin). So, what is it?
Webster defines a MacGuffin as an “object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite lacking intrinsic importance.”
When we hear MacGuffin, most writers immediately think of an object like the falcon figurine from the movie, but as we see in the definition it can be just about anything. It might be a physical object, a specific character, or even something as intangible as an ideology or suspicion. It can be an event that pushes the main characters toward or away from something.
What does all this mean?
Basically, it means a MacGuffin is simply a plot device that usually has no other value beyond driving the plot forward—it’s a motivator. It’s not just a motivator for a scene or a chapter, but a common thread that weaves its way throughout the narrative.
Though the use of an object to drive the plot predates the MacGuffin, it’s believed that English screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who worked extensively with director Alfred Hitchcock, first coined the modern term. When asked about its origin in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University in New York City, Hitchcock, one of the most prolific users of the MacGuffin, explained it as follows:
“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh, that's a MacGuffin'. The first one asks, 'What's a MacGuffin?' 'Well,' the other man says, 'it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers, 'Well then, that's no MacGuffin!' So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”
We’ve already talked about the statue in The Maltese Falcon, so let’s go back a little further. When you talk about objects driving adventures, you need look no further than the Holy Grail, also known as the Holy Chalice. The pursuit of this most coveted item has driven tales from the Arthurian legends to Monty Python. It’s so well known that the term holy grail has come to describe any object of such rarity that people will do just about anything to obtain it.
Another more modern example is the sorcerer’s stone in the first Harry Potter book. The pursuit of the stone drives the plot forward and motivates the characters at every turn, even though we almost never see it and never witness its power. The same can be said for the horcruxes in last books.
People are often the center of a story, but it’s usually not one or more of the main characters. It’s a bit of a twist when the character driving the action isn’t even present for most of the story. One good example is Saving Private Ryan. While the entire film is about finding and extracting Ryan from the theater of war, he’s not the hero, or even a part of the action for the majority of the movie.
A less serious, but no less entertaining example of a person as a MacGuffin comes from the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock. If you’ve ever seen The Trouble with Harry, then you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to ruin it for you, but if you have a dark sense of humor (like me), then you will enjoy this one.
An example from my own shelf comes from my first book, Killing Karma. The MacGuffin in this tale is Rose McCarthy, James’ mother. Though she is never seen (the book opens at her funeral), it’s Rose’s influence that pushes James forward, as well as holds him back, as he learns how to navigate a world that is completely foreign to him.
If you’ve ever read a murder mystery or watched a crime drama on TV, then you’ve seen an incident used as a MacGuffin. The crime that’s been committed isn’t as important as the journey the hero takes in solving it. In this case, the incident can serve to motivate both the hunter and the hunted.
In Rear Window, Hitchcock turns this type MacGuffin a little sideways, as he was known to do. The MacGuffin here is whether or not a murder has even been committed.
In North by Northwest, Hitchcock uses a case of mistaken identity to drive the action. The twist here is the fact that the man the main character is mistaken for doesn’t even exist—a true case of the MacGuffin being nothing!
While people mainly associate MacGuffins with mysteries, they are a useful tool in any genre. They can be anything from a lost love that haunts the protagonist throughout a romance, to the search for a rare record album that leads to a character’s ultimate redemption (I’m talking to you, Jenny!). Just remember that the specific object is never as important as the actions and reactions it creates.
Do you have a favorite in books or movies? What about your own writing? Maybe you’ve used this plot device without even knowing it. Let us know in the comments.
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.
Note: All photos used in this post are public domain images from Wikimedia Commons.
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